Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s turn last July to beg county commissioners for mercy from a crushing wave of budget cuts, she warned them taking an ax to her office could make it impossible to meet the county’s constitutional obligation to give every defendant access to a lawyer.
But first, she explained why she was suing the Chicago Police Department.
“We are the check against police brutality,” Campanelli said of the June 2020 lawsuit she filed alongside a coalition of organizers alleging police had denied phone calls and legal access to protesters who were arrested in connection with racial justice demonstrations.
“Someone has to speak up and challenge authority when it’s wrong,” Campanelli said during the July meeting. “Public defenders are in court every day exposing false police reports, unlawful searches and seizure, coerced confessions and inhumane treatment upon arrest.”
The hearing painted in stark terms the choice county board President Toni Preckwinkle will face in the coming months as she decides who to nominate as the county’s next top defense lawyer. Appointing Campanelli to a second six-year term in the position would mean keeping a fierce reform advocate and withering critic of law enforcement at the helm of an $81 million county office whose official job description involves neither attribute.
“I’m not like every other public defender,” Campanelli said in an interview with The Daily Line on Wednesday. “I push the agenda. I push the envelope. I’m fighting for people and giving them a voice where they haven’t had a voice before.”
Preckwinkle announced on Dec. 29 that she had convened a five-member search committee to review candidates for the job and recommend three names for the president’s consideration. Her choice is set for a vote by the county’s Board of Commissioners in March, ahead of the end of Campanelli’s existing term on March 31.
“When the last Public Defender’s term came to an end in 2015, I promised the residents of Cook County an open, transparent selection process,” Preckwinkle wrote in a press release. “I remain committed to that promise and am confident that this process will produce the candidate best equipped to deliver high-quality legal representation to our residents who need it most.”
Two days later, Campanelli announced she would ask to be appointed to a second term. She told The Daily Line this week that she will send her qualifications to Preckwinkle’s search committee and hope for an interview.
“It’s my career, it’s my life’s work,” the 28-year veteran of the public defender’s office told The Daily Line. “I have a lot of things that are unfinished and that I’d like to follow through on.”
“I want to be part of the solution to this horribly unfair racist criminal justice system,” she added.
New units launched on Campanelli’s watch
Campanelli pointed to the county’s $350,000 allocation in its 2021 budget for her office to create a new Immigration Unit aimed at helping foreign-born county residents who are facing legal challenges over their status. Preckwinkle singled out the unit in her Oct. 15 budget address, saying it would “ensure that clients are fully informed of potential immigration consequences of criminal cases.”
Related: Preckwinkle touts restorative justice in budget that slashes court, jail funding: ‘We cannot police our way out’
Campanelli in 2019 also created a Mental Health Unit in her office, part of her goal of building a “client-centered” defense apparatus that prevents as many defendants as possible from falling into a “downward spiral” of incarceration, she said.
“These are the most vulnerable people in society,” Campanelli said. “Maybe they have a mental health issue, maybe they have a substance abuse issue, maybe they’re homeless and had so much trauma in their lives.”
“People aren’t born and say, ‘gee, when I grow up, I want to be a criminal,’” she said.
But the program Campanelli has most consistently touted has been her office’s Police Station Representation Unit, which aims to dispatch defenders to police stations as soon as people are arrested and booked. Campanelli worked to build up the unit in response to a 2017 order from Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
Public defenders in the unit made more than 2,300 visits to Chicago Police Department or suburban police stations after arrestees called a special hotline between April 2018 and September 2020, according to a public presentation Campanelli gave in November. Police ultimately dropped charges against more than 17 percent of those arrestees, according to her office.
“Normally public defenders are appointed in court, but that’s too late,” Campanelli said. “Everyone who is arrested needs a lawyer at the police station to keep law enforcement in check and to make sure the person understands what’s going to happen next.”
She would push during a potential second term to expand the unit, which has so far only been able to visit about 2 percent of arrestees in police stations, she said. She hopes to drive up that number, in part through a public education campaign to make people aware they can use the resource if they are ever arrested.
But Campanelli added that arrestees can only take advantage of the program if police make the hotline available, a service many in the department have resisted, she said. That was part of the reason she joined the June 2020 lawsuit, whose plaintiffs also include the activist groups Good Kids Mad City, Black Lives Matter Chicago and the #LetUsBreathe Collective, she said.
“I try to explain to police that I’m bringing them credibility,” Campanelli said. “Because if you follow the law and allow a lawyer in the room, that brings credibility to all of us.”
She is also advocating a proposed state law and separate Chicago ordinance (O2019-3873) proposed by Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) requiring city police to give arrestees access to a phone call and legal services within an hour of their arrest. That ordinance stalled last month after Chicago Police and Mayor Lori Lightfoot attempted to change the minimum time to three hours.
Lightfoot and City Council public safety committee chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) argued that one hour was not enough time for police to be able to ensure a phone call. Campanelli disagreed.
“This idea that police can give you a phone call whenever they think it’s reasonable doesn’t work in Chicago, because we’ve seen the egregious behavior of Chicago Police,” Campanelli said. “I’m trying to get the public to understand that there’s always been so much egregious behavior…because Black lives have never mattered to law enforcement. And those in the system have known this for years.”
A spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Line Thursday that the department is “committed to ensuring the civil rights of any individual taken into custody.”
“That’s why, as required by State law, we ensure that detainees have access to legal representation when in custody,” the statement continued. “Furthermore, the Department is required to provide arrestees access to a phone and the ability to make a phone call as soon as practicable and reasonably possible.”
Leaning into policy advocacy
Campanelli is also a staunch advocate for Evans’ 2018 bond reform order and the proposed Pretrial Fairness Act, which would abolish the use of cash bail statewide. Both policies have been opposed by law enforcement agencies and their allies who have drawn a link between softer bail policies and higher crime, all critics whom Campanelli said have been “proven wrong by the data.”
The public defender’s policy advocacy has repeatedly landed her in the same corner as organizers and civil rights attorneys like Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which was also a plaintiff in the June lawsuit against Chicago Police.
Campanelli’s office helped enable the lawsuit by providing affidavits from assistant public defenders who were unable to reach arrestees at police stations, Van Brunt told The Daily Line on Friday. She added that the office also aided the MacArthur Justice Center’s April 2020 federal lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff’s Office by providing access to detainees who alleged they were being held in unsafe conditions while COVID-19 spread.
“I really can’t overstate the value of having that inside perspective and inside knowledge” when bringing legal challenges against the law enforcement agencies, Van Brunt said.
“I think it’s been shown across the country that the most successful pretrial detention and bond reform efforts have been achieved because they’ve been facilitated and spearheaded by public defenders’ offices,” the attorney added. “And the fact that [Campanelli] was willing to open up her entire office to this information-gathering process…is pretty unique and incredibly essential to achieving the kind of systemic reform we’re seeking.”
Campanelli’s outspoken criticism of policing and carceral systems may not be traditional as far as public officials go. But as Preckwinkle prepares to make a choice this year, Van Brunt said she worries about “going back to the old days when public defense was just about individual representation, and not systemic reform.”
“We’re past that,” Van Brunt said. “We can’t get back to that head-in-the-sand approach, and it takes an intentional response to challenge that.”
A spokesperson for Preckwinkle wrote in a statement Thursday that if Campanelli follows through with her application for a new term, the president’s hand-picked search committee
will “judge her on her merits and experience in line with the rest of the candidates under consideration.”